At number four, we’ve got a comedy couple. For those who don’t know, Futurama is an animated sitcom revolving around Fry, a cryogenically frozen pizza delivery boy from the 1990s, and his coworkers at Planet Express, the interstellar delivery company he goes to work for when he gets thawed out in the 3000s. His pursuit of Planet Express Ship’s captain, Leela, is one of the main overarching storylines of the show.
I’ve got a soft spot for give-me-a-chance romances (mostly because my marriage is, in large part, the result of my husband’s remarkable patience and persistence), and Fry and Leela’s is one of the best. Like the rest of the show, Fry and Leela’s relationship is usually treated with light irreverence. The escalation of Fry’s attempted romantic gestures and the lengths the writers have to go to to keep them apart (and the balance of the show intact) have both developed into acknowledged running jokes.
But as any comedian (or anyone who’s ever watched an episode of Fawlty Towers) will tell you, comedy and tragedy really are two sides of the same coin. It’s hard not to laugh at Fry’s endless, ill-fated efforts, Leela’s stubbornness and disastrous attempts at a love life away from her obvious destined counterpart, but it’s impossible not to feel for them as well. Futurama recognizes this and runs with it, usually keeping a balance of funny sweetness between them but occasionally pushing further.
In one episode, the Planet Express Ship crew find themselves skipping forward in time with no memory of the missed hours and days. After a bad skip, Fry and Leela return to consciousness at the altar, newly married, and Fry spends the rest of the episode trying to figure out how he won her over, so that he can convince her it wasn’t a mistake. When he’s left with the task of rearranging celestial bodies with a gravity ray to set time straight (it’s a sci-fi sitcom, what do you expect?) he finds the love note he wrote her in the stars, using the ray during the skip. He calls for her, but before she gets there, the stars are sucked into a black hole they’re using for the time fix. When she asks what happened, he says, “Nothing,” and the episode ends on him staring out into empty space. If Futurama used a laugh track, there would still be silence here.
In more recent seasons, the show’s become more random and episodic, having more or less wrapped up its longer plotlines in time for its first cancellation, and Fry and Leela end up being plugged into whatever couple spot each week’s premise requires, but the sweetness is still there, and the show’s multiple deaths and revivals do have the benefit of confirming where Fry and Leela’s story has to end, no matter what strange corners it has time to explore first.
The first “last” episode involves Fry making a deal with the Devil (and by Devil, I mean Robot Devil) for the ability to write an opera for Leela. The deal naturally goes wrong, Fry’s enhanced musical ability is revoked, and we close with him alone onstage, Leela alone in the audience, and the words, “Please don’t stop playing, Fry. I want to hear how it ends.” The first revival, through direct-to-DVD movies, ends on a kiss, as they and the rest of the main characters steer into a wormhole, toward the unknown. A hilariously convoluted season premier was necessary to undo that one, when the show got yet another reprieve. The Fry and Leela romance is always the most vital loose end to be tied up just right, and the unraveling of it while the show survives is a particularly delicious case of having your cake and eating it too.
Sitcom honorable mentions:
Homer and Marge Simpson of The Simpsons. Yes, he’s a violent moron, and she’s a hopeless square, but they’re the eternal TV married couple, and whenever they do get serious, they’ll make you realize how attached you can get to them as a pair.
George Sunday and Janet Dawkins of My Hero. They’re a parody of superhero comic couples, immersed in Ardal O'Hanlon’s absurdist, laugh-out-loud humor, but again, they can get serious and make you cry, demonstrating just how much it’s possible to invest in characters who primarily make us laugh.
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